The Sweet Sound of Learning

Last Friday as my students were beginning a new project, it occurred to me that the sound of students learning is rarely recorded.  If you would like to hear the sweetest sound in education listen to the podcast to the right, Sound of Student Collaboration.  If you’re expecting to hear a teacher lecturing and students dutifully raising their hands to answer questions, you’ll be disappointed.  What you will hear is four teams, six students on each team as we begin our latest project.  The project is to create an audio book by writing original stories around a theme.  The four themes were, Respect, Honesty, Taking Responsibility for Your Actions, and Taking Ownership of Your Education.  These themes were chosen specifically for their use with younger or future classrooms as teaching tools.  My students will gain from the collaborative thinking and the reinforcement of character issues. 

To get started, the four teams of six students drew for their theme and then began the task of outlining a story.  This is what you will hear on the podcast, the teams collaborating on a story outline, creating characters, etc. as I walked around the room monitoring their discussions and progress.  We are going to use PowerPoint to create our stories, scanning in the student illustrators’ pictures, using our voices and pictures to tell the story and creating audio books.  The excitement was high as their brains were enfused with creativity and sparked by the imaginations of their teammates.  It was a thrilling thing to watch and hear as students were sharing ideas, creating and learning from each other. 

To some educators, this type of learning is messy or considered, “too much work.” To some, letting go of what is safe can be scary.  Usually the educators who have those opinions also have a death-grip on their classroom and find it hard to let go of their control.  These are the same teachers that have trouble letting go of their class when they are assigned a student teacher as well.  Suddenly, the popular saying that begins, “If you love something, let it go…” comes to mind.   When you think about it, people, plants, anything that blooms,  rarely grow or learn when confined in a small box or space.  How frustrating it must be to want to grow or learn only to held back or down by traditional classroom conventions.  Lest, anyone think that you can’t have discipline and allow students to learn in a student-centered room that is faciliated by the teacher, believe me, it can be done.   In my next blog, I will explain how to go about setting up a collaborative classroom atmosphere. 

The Wonderful World of Wikis

My favorite Web 2.0 tool right now is the wiki.  I love them and more importantly, my students love them.  If you’re not familiar with them they are basically web pages that allow people to edit them.  This allows for a collaborative learning atmosphere that bolsters any learning community.  As one of my students wrote in one of our wikis, “I love this writing back and forth!”  Students are actually thanking me for providing a way that they can communicate with me and each other in writing!  They are reading, writing, reinforcing what they have learned and learning from each other.  How great is that?!  

So far we have tried two free sites.  One is http://www.wikispaces.com/ and http://pbwiki.com/ .  Both are very easy to use and my students learned quickly how to manuever around and post their discussions.   We’ve used wikis to summarize chapters, to share our knowledge of a concept, each reading group has a wiki, and my parent/student book clubs have used wikis.   To check out our wikis go to our Wiki page @ http://schoolweb.missouri.edu/poplarbluff.k12.mo.us/lowe/Wikis.html.

 It’s an exciting time in the classroom when a new tool for learning is introduced and it’s pronounced a success by your students.  If you haven’t tried using a wiki with your students,  give it a try.  I think you’ll like the results. 

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Everyone Has A Story

Most of us ordinary mortals that teach enter into the profession hoping that we will make a difference in our students’ lives. Many times the differences we make may go unrecognized. Teaching is basically an intrinsic job. For this reason, we must take inspiration where we can so that we can stay rejuvenated and motivated to keep doing what we do… educating our youth. Last month I had the opportunity to hear Erin Gruwell and one of her students, Maria Reyes speak at the Pathways Conference. (To hear Erin and Maria’s conversation with STARR teachers click on “Plowe Podcasts”)

Hearing her speak reminded me that we all have a story to tell. Remember when you were a child and pretended that you were the star of your own tv show or movie?   You may have acted out scenes of “Your Show” with pajama bottoms on your head for long hair, or a towel clothes-pinned around your neck for a cape.  You knew back then that you had a story to tell.  Somewhere along the way, we sometimes forget that we have our own stories; each one unique and interesting.  Our lives get busy and we get caught up in just living our lives.  These days the Internet is allowing people to be the stars of their own reality shows with sites such as, YouTube and TeacherTube.  More and more people are living their fifteen minutes of fame online.  The average teacher doesn’t have a PR person or agent to promote their good works or stories, but all teachers have special student success stories.  That’s the beauty of being an educator, those student successes.  They keep dedicated teachers coming back to the classroom every morning.  It kept Erin Gruwell coming back to a less than wonderful teaching situation everyday.  This is a difficult time for educators.  There are many detractors and stresses.  During frustrating times, teachers should remember their triumphs, take pride in their stories and know that somewhere, at some time, a student will think of them and be thankful that their lives have been touched by their teacher’s story. 

Look Ma, I’m a Writer!

I thought it was fitting to make the topic of my very first Lowe Down blog to be about writing. I’ve always been a voracious reader but never considered myself a writer. When given assignments in high school and college I never balked at writing but it was never a necessary thing that I had to do, such as, breathing. In the past few years I’ve managed to write a couple articles for techLearning.com, one for the University of Missouri concerning eMINTS and authored a workbook for the textbook, Missouri; Then & Now. Writing has become something that I find myself doing daily in some form or another. This is a good thing because I am not considered a “big talker” or a person who spins small talk easily. I speak when I have something to say, either serious or funny. Writing is an outlet that allows me to express myself without vying for time or space to enter a conversation. So many times people in verbal conversations are so busy waiting for an opportunity to say their peace or thinking about what they are going to say next that the weight of words is sometimes lost. Which brings the old “if a tree fell in the woods” quotation to mind… if someone says something important but no one hears it, is it still important? I say, “yes”, just ask any student who was not listening when their teacher gave instructions to be completed immediately. I try to convey to my fourth graders that words are powerful and for that reason alone, it is important that they learn to express themselves effectively and with care.
We all know that to express ourselves effectively, we need to write often. One way to assist students in becoming good writers is to enlist writing in their daily lessons. I recently attended a workshop conducted by Vicki Urquhart, the co-author of, Teaching Writing in the Content Areas. The book is based upon 30 years of research in order to figure out how to help student achievement. It contains very good ideas and is divided into 5 Sections: The Role of Time, Assessment, Technology, the Teacher and Strategies for Teaching Writing in the Content Areas. These are all areas of concern for teachers who want to incorporate writing into their lessons. One added benefit according to Urquhart is that teachers come to know their students, what they are thinking, and what they are or are not learning. That benefit alone is worth the effort. There was a teacher at the training who commented that her school had implemented writing in all content areas and it raised their Communication Arts scores on the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) 20 points this past year. She said that they would be doing the same thing this year and then observing their scores closely to see if they maintained the same results. I think many people will be watching to see if they maintain or boost their Communication Arts scores again.
In the past five years I have dispersed what is now called, disciplinary literacy in my curriculum in an effort to promote higher-level thinking. It’s a natural fit, reading, writing and learning go hand-in-hand. I believe one major reason that many teachers shy away from using writing assignments or questions, is that they are time consuming to grade. The use of rubrics or scoring guides helps to make short work of grading writing assignments. I personally use Rubistar. I even ask my students to create their own scoring guides from time to time. Being a veteran eMINTS teacher and having technology available to my students has made it easier to practice writing in our curriculum. My students are allowed to be creative thinkers and this helps as they build their writing skills. One of my students’ favorite writing activities is our character education blog using Andy Griffith episodes. They enjoy writing about the character issues and typing out their thoughts. We use a scoring guide to help them stay on topic and use general writing guidelines. Their parents enjoy reading their students’ writing as well. We are using David Warlick’s, Class Blogmeister site. It allows for the teacher to have total control over what is posted online, including being able to send comments to the writer(s) asking for proofreading and rewrites or praise for a job well done. You can view our blogs (also called “The Lowe Down”) to view our progress.
There are many other sites and programs that promote writing that could be used with one or a classroom of students. Here are a few that I use with my students:
Kidspiration
PowerPoint
Microsoft Word
Writely
ReadWriteThink
Education World’s Writing Bugs
Writing Den
Scholastic’s Writing with Writers

My current project is a writing experiment using a discussion board. The initial reaction was excitement. I’ll let you know how it goes…